In the seventh edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series we spoke to James Conlon. We chatted to James about mental health experiences, his life living with Ulcerative Colitis and his journey into one of the most prominent mental health advocates in the UK.
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
It’s okay at the moment, I have my down days like everyone does. I feel quite content and strong.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
I first became aware of my own mental health around the age 14. I was being profusely bullied at school about my friendships and my sexuality and this started to affect me mentally. Physical pain disappears but mental health is always there.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
I suffer from depression, I have done for 10 years now.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
Every day is different. You can wake up one morning feeling okay, then an hour into the day you feel like it’s the worst day. It can be incredibly isolating and can affect everything including your relationships with friends and family and your job.
You’ve been very open about your bowel (disease), Ulcerative Colitis. How does that affect your day-to-day life?
I am currently on medication which means I can live my day to day life as normally as I possibly can. In bad periods you can call the bathroom ‘home’ – the pain and mental strain of your body effectively attacking itself is exhausting. Planning your days around where the next toilet is and how long it would take you to get there.
Why do you think it’s been such an under-reported condition for so long?
No one likes talking about poo, do they? There is still such a taboo around Inflammatory Bowel Disease and talking about it. Thankfully this is getting better and many more people are talking about it and how it affects them individually.
How does your bowel (disease) (IBD) affect your mental health and how supportive is the IBD community?
When my disease is flaring it does affect my mental health. I feel exhausted and everything is so much effort. Sometimes I do sit back and wonder “why me?” “Why did this have to happen to me?” It’s a double-edged sword because it has a knock-on effect.
The IBD community has been incredibly supportive to me. I’ve been able to meet some of my best friends through the community. Everyone knows what you’re going through and they can offer their own advice based on experience.
Tell me about your journey to becoming a Mental Health advocate. How did it start and what made you decide to put yourself out there in order to help others?
I have always suffered from depression. I saw the wonderful work my friend Hattie Gladwell was doing to raise awareness of mental health and mental illness and how these affect an individual’s life. Hattie inspired me to be more open about my mental wellbeing. If me talking about my own experiences can help someone then I will continue to do so.
What does your advocacy work involve you doing on a day-to-day basis?
I work full time but do advocate as much as I can. I use social media to advocate about my own experiences but also reach out to others and make people aware of the seriousness of mental health and mental illness, whether that’s through a tweet or speaking to someone via direct message.
Who do you know you have helped so far?
I do get messages some days saying my tweets have helped but I like to think that I’m just reminding someone of things they already know.
What factors do you think have affected your mental health? So, it could be school, pressure at work, family influences etc.
My experiences at school definitely affected my mental health, alongside my diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis.
The pressure of trying to fit in at school and also not being aware of my sexuality and who I was played a big part.
Have you told anyone close to you about your mental health issues like your friends or family and have you asked for support for them?
I have always been open with my friends and family about my mental health and how I feel. I have been unable to hide it from them. They have always been supportive without me asking and I am extremely lucky. Sometimes they know I just need my own space.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
My form of self-care is trying to look after myself, pulling myself away from social media, running a bath and trying to relax. I have had 1-1 counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which have both helped at different times in the past.
If you could, what do you think were your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
My lowest would have to be around a year ago. I had taken on more responsibility at work and I wasn’t feeling physically well. This was coupled with a really busy time of year, I had thrown myself into work and didn’t take enough care of myself. I hit rock bottom and didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t enjoying my work or my life.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a high point to give you at the moment.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
The conversation is definitely changing. More people are speaking out about their experiences and how they’re affected by them. There is more focus on mental health in general and it seems to be going in the right direction. There is still so much work to do but it’s heading in the right direction.
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone who has mental health issues can get the support they need?
The service needs to be better; there needs to be more funding for the NHS, better access to talking therapies and not massive long waiting lists. You feel like you’re a figure on a page rather than someone who needs the support. The system needs to be properly funded and fair – the waiting times to access support are ridiculous.
How do we think we break the stigma amongst boys that it’s okay for us to talk about our mental health and it doesn’t make us less of a man?
We have to continue the conversation between us as men about our mental health, making sure that we know we can talk to each other openly and honestly about how we’re feeling, what support we need and where we can find it.
We shouldn’t be telling men to “man up” or that they shouldn’t talk about their feelings. Everyone has mental health and it is so important that we continue the conversation around it.
You can follow James on Twitter.
See more conversations like this in our ‘Just Checking In’ section.